all of it at the Royal Court Theatre review *****

all of it

Royal Court Theatre, 11th February 2020

So we will have to wait for Alistair McDowall’s latest full length play The Glow at the Royal Court, postponed thanks to you know what. Mr McDowall was the pen, and brains, behind dystopian/sci-fi/mystery/thriller/social satires Brilliant Adventures, Talk Show, Captain Amazing, Pomona and X. His plays sound audaciously bonkers in synopsis but actually work, albeit with a lot of creative hard work, on page and stage. He is one of our most talented and ambitious young playwrights, influenced, as they all are by the godhead Caryl Churchill, as well as by Sarah Kane and cinema, but blessed with the skill to carry it off. The Glow, which look like it kicks off in the world of spiritualism in Victorian Britain, was one of my most looked forward to plays. I will just have to keep looking forward.

In the meantime we were treated to this. all of it. A 45 minute steam of consciousness monologue which tells the story of one unnamed woman’s life. All of it. The extraordinary Kate O’Flynn, directed by Vicky Featherstone, on a stool under a single spotlight, (easy money for lighting designer Anna Watson but exactly what was required). It starts with noises, burbles, single words, repeated. The child. The teen, self-absorbed, desperate to fit in, discovering drink. Sexual awakening. Marriage, divorce, the monotony of work, re-marriage, motherhood, child-rearing. Disease. Death. Our heroine is resolutely ordinary. I have no idea what it is to be a woman but Mr McDowall seems to get inside her head. The text is funny, warming, smart, insightful. Kate O’Flynn creates rhythm, drama and empathy from the dissociated words. Think Beckett, or, better still, an unpretentious Joyce.

I was captivated. Though I can see why some might have been underwhelmed by the experiment. That’s life.

Beckett Trilogy at the Jermyn Street Theatre review ****(and some other at-home Beckett stuff)

Beckett Trilogy: Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune

Jermyn Street Theatre, 4th February 2020

Fragments: Beckett by Brook – Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither , Come and Go – VIMEO, Bouffes du Nord – 26th March 2020

Endgame/Rough for Theatre II – Digital Theatre, Old Vic – 9th April 2020

Having put in countless theatre hours over the last few years the Tourist feels ready to get to grips with another of the “writers who changed theatre” in the form of one Samuel Beckett. Anyone with a passing interest in culture generally, and theatre particularly, is going to have encountered the great Irishman, but, to the uninitiated like me his reputation is fearsome. Still no time like the present.

Especially when the equally fearsome Peter Brooke, similarly ascetic and similarly a Parisian expat, has kindly posted up a recording of his (and Marie-Helene Estienne’s) production of Fragments: Beckett by Brook from the Bouffes du Nord in 2018 (and last in London in 2008). I have had a couple of cracks at Mr Brooke and Ms Estienne’s oeuvre with mixed success, Battlefield at the Young Vic, their take on The Mahabharata, and The Prisoner at the NT, both works of elongated, and exacting, beauty. Fragments comprises five short pieces by Beckett, Rough for Theatre I, Rockaby, Act Without Words II, Neither and Come and Go, performed by, drum roll please, Kathryn Hunter, Jos Houben and Marcello Magni. Jacques Lecoq alumni, and all round stage acting royalty, especially when it comes to the tough, avant garde-y stuff.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Beckett, in addition to posing questions about language, memory, purpose, mortality, despair, isolation, confinement, observation, connection, indeed, the whole futility, with tenacity, of human existence and nature-of-the-self gig, liked a laugh, especially of the mordant, and/or gallows absurd, kind. Which is what PB and the three actors mine in Fragments. It isn’t too much of a leap from this to Python. Honestly. Of course it helps that Belgian actor Jos Houben is peerless as a physical comedy theatre actor, that Kathryn Hunter is the very definition of “shape-shifter”, (whatever you do do not miss an opportunity to see her on stage, most recently in the RSC Timon of Athens), and that Marcello Magni was a founder member of Complicite, (the other two are regular collaborators), about as innovative a theatre company as it gets. Oh, and he was also the voice of Pingu.

Rough for Theatre I is probably the trickiest customer on the bill. A blind beggar, busking on his fiddle, teams up with another chap who has lost a leg. Both reference past lovers/carers/family. They might be abandoned. They search for food. Mutual support turns to annoyance and, maybe, violence. A lot of the classic Beckett stuff is on show, a couple of cranky fellas bound in uneasy interdependence. But it doesn’t quite persuade and turns into a long, old 20 minutes.

Rockaby, with the archetypal old woman, W, in a rocking chair, the ghostly vibe, the simple, pre-recorded, dimeter verse echoing a lullaby, the hypnotic stresses and repetitions, (each of the four sections begins with “more”), the gradual withdrawal of W from the world, and her eventual death, is a work that most definitely does work. Especially in the hands, and eyes, and mouth, of Kathryn Hunter. There isn’t much here to express, but express she does, packing all manner of emotion into less than 10 minutes. Fuck life as W says. But do it gently.

Act Without Words II, like its companion piece, and the likes of Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape was written ion the 1950s, but unlike them it is a mime piece. Two fellas, of course, emerge consecutively from sacks on stage after being prodded by a large pole, before engaging in their, presumably daily, routines. One is chaotic, a hypochondriac, the other fastidious, a clock-watcher. A recipe for audience bemusement? You might think so from the sound of it, but, in the hands of Messrs Houten and Magni, it is hilarious, Laurel and Hardy-esque, one of the funniest things I have seen on stage. With Rockaby and now this I think I can see the attraction of Beckett.

And Come and Go only added to the attraction. Three middle-aged women, Flo, Vi and Ru, friends since childhood, Houten and Magni decked out with coats, hats and a bit of rouge, sit on a bench, natter, and then, as each moves away in turn, a whispered secret something is exchanged between the remaining pair. At the end they link hands in the “old way”, a Celtic knot. I can imagine this scenario might come across as foreboding, a reference to incipient illness or death, we don’t actually hear the secrets, but in this production it is comic, the whispers more gossipy or bitching. More Cissie and Ada (google it) than “staring into the void”. After all we all like to chide our friends behind their backs with our other friends in the guise of concern.

Neither is a poem of sorts, just 87 words, in ten lines, with apparently just 3 commas. That’s minimalism for you. It is some kind of dialectical journey, maybe to death, who knows. Kathryn Hunter can’t make its meaning clear but blimey does she make every word count.

All in all then highly recommended (it’s still on Vimeo). How all the little tragi-comic stuff can shed a light on all the big stuff which rattles around in our heads. Not, as Peter Brooke says, wall to wall despair and pessimism as Beckett reputation dictates. And showing how the best actors can reveal, even to the dubious like the Tourist, that there is more to Beckett than initially meets the eye, and ear.

On to Endgame. Or to be more precise Rough for Theatre I and then Endgame. From the Old Vic. Now my scheduled performance was a casualty of you know what but the nice people at the Old Vic offered up a filmed version of the production which I snapped up. Now, before the interruption, the draw of Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming, had ensured brisk business for something relatively challenging judging by the wait it took me to secure my favourite perch. For Endgame, Fin de partie in the original French, (the language Beckett always initially used), does jog on a bit coming in at 80 minutes. It is bracketed up there with the likes of Waiting for Godot in the Beckett canon, and, whilst the critics response to the production was decidedly mixed, there was enough to make me gently expectant.

I have to say didn’t really get on with it though. Whether this was down to play or to performance, it is difficult to say. Having now see what PR and M-HE could do with Beckett in Fragments, (and, as you will see below, what Trevor Nunn was able to serve up in his Beckett trilogy), I think the director, here Richard Jones, might have been culpable. True the director’s freedom to interpret is proscribed by the still vice-like grip exerted by the Beckett estate, demanding compliance with the great man’s stage directions, and by the stripping away of realist anchors, the lack of plot, the minimalist aesthetic and so on. Even so I still think the thematic repetition, this really is about four troubled souls going round in circles, and the skill of certain the actors, left Mr Jones only really scratching the surface.

Alan Cumming played Hamm, confined to a chair, (with a rather distracting pair of fake stick-thin beanie legs on permanent display), with a splenetic camp which at first amused but soon curdled. And Daniel Radcliffe, who to his credit, seeks out acting challenges in an almost penitent way since the screen Potter juggernaut was wound up, is similarly one-dimensional as restless servant/foundling Clov. I am afraid he does’t really seem to get with the profundity, opting for a superficial humour in word and deed. The two don’t feel that they have spent an eternity locked together. Contrast this with Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks, (with facial prosthetics which really do convince), as Magg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, living in wheelie bins downstage left. Much less to say, but by not trying to grasp for comedy that isn’t there, both convey far more .

In order to get under the surface of “life is absurd”, and “in the midst of death we are in life”, (or maybe it’s the other way round), I think I can see that creatives need to delve a bit deeper. If all we see is the outward character, like a realist play, here Hamm as childish despot “actor” doing a turn primarily for himself, or Clov as mild-mannered extra from the Ministry of Silly Walks, it just become too much hard work to listen to what Beckett was saying. I am guessing the existential bitterness at the core of Endgame really is the deal but having the confidence to see that through feels like a big ask. As Hamm says “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” but only I guess if you don’t try too hard to make it too funny in the first place. I will need to try again with the play to test the theory or to accept that it could just be that I simply don’t have the patience to see it through in which case, mea culpa.

As it happens I preferred Rough for Theatre II. Two bureaucrats, Bertrand and Morvan, are in a room assessing the evidence as to whether would be suicide Croker, (Jackson Milner standing stock still for half an hour with his back to us – bravo fella), should jump or not. There is a contrast between the two, Cumming’s Bertrand is sweary, impulsive, keen to crack on, Radcliffe’s Morvan, more measured, though indecisive. The scenario is milked for gags as it echoes the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, Here Comes Mr Jordan and A Matter of Life and Death from the 1940s. Croker might have been rejected, he might be ill, he might be a tortured artist. The comments of the various witnesses from Croker’s life are mostly banal, only occasionally poignant or profound. The banter between B and V edges towards Shakespearean wordplay, as well as the more visible vaudeville. The end is ambiguous. It could be Pinter, which is probably why I much preferred it

Right finally to the Jermyn Street trilogy. Sorry that took so long but this is how I learn. Firstly the intimacy of the JST served these plays very well especially Krapp’s Last Tape and Eh Joe. Secondly the cast. David Threlfall, James Hayes, Niall Buggy and, even if in voice only, Lisa Dwan have the measure of Beckett. It is rare to see Lisa Dwan’s name in print without the words “foremost Beckett interpreter/scholar” appended, (Not I, the one with the mouth, is her particular Beckett party piece), though she has plenty of other heavyweight acting credits to her name in Ireland and elsewhere, as does fellow Irish actor Niall Buggy. David Threlfall is just an all round top geezer, last seen on stage as the RSC Don Quixote, who has played Beckett on screen, albeit in the hit and miss comedy series Urban Myths. James Hayes has been treading the boards for as long as the Tourist has been mortal, and collaborated with Trevor Nunn at the JST in radio play All That Fall in 2012 with Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon.

Understandably the Beckett estate rates Trevor Nunn, now 80. He is, after all, pretty much the Father of the House when it comes to theatre direction. Unlike Richard Jones whose USP is showy, scatter-gun, (though often brilliant), opera. Max Pappenheim is able to conjure up a sound design with real impact in a space he knows well and I assume David Howe, normally to be found lighting up the West End, said yes straight away when he got the Nunn call. The monochrome world, specified for Krapp’s Last Tape, persists throughout. Old age and memory is what links the three works. What four old men remember and what they forget.

Krapp’s Last Tape, from 1958, the year after Endgame, was big draw here, with James Hayes, literally, in the chair. Krapp on his 69th birthday, and sporting a natty pair of snakeskin shoes, sets out to make a tape (reel-to-reel kids, ask Grandad, though make sure it is by phone) documenting the last year and to review a similar tape he made when he was 39, made after he had returned from celebrating that birthday in the pub. This tape mocks the commentary of another tape he made in his mid twenties. He is more interested in the definition of the word “viduity” than the death of his mother. (The table is piled up with tapes, a ledger and the dictionary). Some memories annoy him, others, notably a romantic tryst in a punt, enchant him. The 39 year old is confident in the choices he has made, the 69 year old full of regret, notably in his writing. Is this his “final” tape?

Beckett was 52 when he wrote it. You can read whatever you want into it but it seems easy to just take it as autobiography and revel in the power and construction of memory. Failures in love, in work and in drink. It went through many drafts, much like our memories I suppose. The Wiki page is very helpful in fleshing out the characters, real and fictional, mentioned in the monologue and in describing Beckett’s own position at the time of writing.

I can’t pretend I was hanging on every word of James Hayes’s mesmerising performance. but that is because I ended up revisiting my own past in my mind. What better praise can I offer?

Eh Joe is pretty scary. It was SB’s first play for television, first performed in 1966 by Jack MacGowan, for whom it was written, with Sian Philips as The Voice. Joe, in his fifties, is sitting alone on his bed in dressing gown and slippers, with a camera trained on him. He gets up to check windows, curtains, door, cupboard and bed as if in fear. The camera cuts to a close-up of his face from just a metre away which slowly zooms in, nine times, through the remaining 15 minutes or so. Joe is relaxed, though confined, staring at, though not into the camera. Then the voice, here Lisa Dwan, starts hammering away at him, the recording heavily miked, accusatory, recalling their relationship and his abandoning of another woman who attempts suicide. She is the guilt-ridden voice inside his head I guess, the feminine judge of his masculine sin. He has excised the voices of his mother, father and others who may have loved him. The Voice’s words brim with violence. There is Catholic and sexual guilt aplenty. Niall Buggy, for a man who doesn’t speak, is riveting and now I get why Lisa Dwan is so well regarded. Once again it is all about the getting the rhythm and melody of the language to convey interiority.

Lisa Dwan was 12 when she saw Eh Joe on the telly. It stayed with her. I’m not surprised.

Fortunately we were then given a break before The Old Tune, which compared to the two previous plays, was a breeze. Rarely performed, it is a free translation by Beckett of a 1960 radio play, La Manivelle (The Crank) by his Swiss-French mate Robert Pinget. Niall Buggy and David Threlfall are a couple of Dublin old-timers, Gorman and Cream, shooting the breeze on, of course, a bench. They share memories, all the way back to early childhood, but can’t always agree on exactly what. It’s got some laughs.

So that’s that then. No doubt I will be back to Beckett. But for the moment, at least when the performers are on song, memories are made of this ….

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel at Wilton’s Music Hall review ****

The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Wilton’s Music Hall, 16th January 2020

I was much taken with one of Told By An Idiot’s previous productions Napoleon Disrobed, which featured its co-founder and AD Paul Hunter alongside Ayesha Antoine, whose career unsurprisingly has gone fro strength to strength after she starting out in soaps, and was directed by the shape-shifting wonder that is Kathryn Hunter. For TSTOCCAS Paul Hunter similarly spins a yarn from an alternative history, this time inspired by the chance, and brief, meeting between Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel in 1910 on a passenger ship bound for New York as part of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe. Subsequently for two years Stan acted as Charlie’s understudy, though he, Chaplin, barely acknowledged this.

In homage to the silent movie era the action is largely silent, with on stage piano accompaniment from Sara Alexander, (to a score from talented jazz composer Zoe Rahman which even manages to squeeze in a hip-hop routine), who is also roped in to the action as Charlie’s Mum, alongside the diminutive Amalia Vitale who plans Charlie, Jerome Marsh-Reid who plays a lanky Stan, as well as a few supporting roles, Nick Haverson who plays impressario Fred Karno as well as Oliver Hardy, Charlie’s Dad and others. Ionna Curelea’s set, an ingenious children’s playground ship/theatre/hotel that works vertically as much as it does horizontally and fills the Wilton’s stage, is the backdrop for a jaw-dropping display of perfectly choreographed physical theatre. Much credit to physical comedy consultant, master of mime Jos Hauben, and dance choreographer Nuna Sandy. OK so the time, past, future and present jumbled up, and character shifts, even with video (Dom Baker) and lighting (Aideen Malone) cues, are a little tricky to follow but I guess that Paul Hunter, who also directs, has reasoned that the visual comic entertainment is enough to draw us in until the narrative becomes clear. In this he is right.

PH’s mission is to create fantasy out of fact, though with less profound consequences than, say, a certain numpty POTUS, which explains the central scene where Chaplin accidentally bops Stan on the head with a frying pan and disposes of the body overboard, which provides some of the most impressive of many pratfalls and slapstick(s). The more poignant side of early comedy is not left untouched notably in the scenes detailing Charlie’s Victorian London childhood, complete with drunken parents and midnight flits. When even the stamina of three actors plus pianist is not enough to fill the drama an audience member is roped in for piano duty. And, in maybe the funniest episode, Amalia Vitale, who nails Chaplin’s mannerisms, persuades another punter to join her on stage for a swim. All secured through charm alone and without saying a word.

90 minutes is probably as long as the cast can physically deliver and the show might benefit from excising a handful of ideas and scenes but if you really want to see sustained theatrical invention, every mime trick in the book is rolled out, and have more than a chuckle or two, (and thereby distract from multiple Ends of the World angst), then this is I can heartily recommend. I see the tour continues to Northampton and Exeter at the end of this month.

Botticelli in the Fire at Hampstead Theatre review **

Botticelli in the Fire

Hampstead Theatre, 20th November 2019

Us pensioners, well nearly in the case of the Tourist, as well as the real-dealers who haunt the matinees at which he largely frequents, are getting our eyes opened in Roxana Silbert’s first season as AD at the HT. Nothing fusty about the main stage offerings, what with scandal and corruption in China the subject of The King of Hell’s Palace, Cold War by proxy through chess in Ravens on now, and the threat from data capture and surveillance in Haystack to come. And this by Canadian playwright Jordan Tannahill, a queer history set in a Renaissance Florence, plagued by, er, plague, centred on the artist Sandro Botticelli.

It starts well. Dickie Beau as Botticelli, who serves up as committed a performance as you could expect to see on this or any other stage, in skinny jeans and leather jacket, opens with a direct to audience confessional which broadsides the artist’s sybaritic outlook and the challenges his art and his sexuality present in a liberal state lurching towards repression. That is the message and James Cotterill’s costumes, and the artist studio set that soon emerges, do a grand job in bringing a contemporary resonance to that message, though don’t quite fill the space. Best of all this soliloquy is filthily funny. Mr Tannahill introduces Botticelli’s assistant, on Leonardo Da Vinci (a measured Hiran Abeysekera), and debauched bessie the vivacious Poggio Di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola).

Leonardo of course apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio, as did Botticelli briefly, and I am pretty sure Poggio is fictional, but the combination serves the purpose well and reflects the fact that both artists were accused of sodomy when the moral clampdown led by radical Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward). Before we get to the pivotal scene, again based on fact, where Botticelli trades some of his work, to be consumed in the Bonfire of the Vanities of 1497, in return for immunity, we meet first Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba). She is the outspoken wife of political and banking big cheese, and Botticelli’s patron, Lorenzo de Medici (Adetomiwa Edun), who it transpires is Botticelli’s lover, Clarice not Lorenzo, though one can imagine. Ms Saba also playa the Venus in that painting which Lorenzo has commissioned.

Plenty to get your dramatic teeth into you would think. The problem is that Mr Tannahill’s modern vernacular text isn’t really up to the task. His legitimate determination to stick with the hedonistic tone established at the outset and reinforce his queering of history intention means the plot starts to get overwhelmed by the spectacle and the arguments that the characters advance, the purpose of art, sexual freedom, the exercise of political and religious power, the mobilisation of parochial populism against the liberal elite, become perfunctory. I suppose there were clues in the opening address, “this is not just a play, it’s an extravaganza”, and “the historians, I’m sorry, you can all go and fuck yourselves”.

Jordan Tannahill is plainly a talented young man, turning his hand to all many of multi-media collaborations, but a play, particularly one which takes as its starting point a lesson from history, (however this is re-imagined), needs a solid grounding in the text. I loved the look and the performances, performance artist Dickie Beau has bags of stage presence, but even he was unable to demand any sustained emotional or intellectual investment from the audience. Blanche McIntyre’s pliant direction, with help from the lighting and sound designs of Johanna Town and Christopher Shutt, engineers some arresting scenes, a camp dance routine, a choreographed squash game, the burning, but cannot compensate for the sparsity of character and contention. In the end, the play, like its protagonist, is so in love with itself that it doesn’t really look out to see what is going on around it.

Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree Theatre review ****

Little Baby Jesus

Orange Tree Theatre, 28th October 2019

No flies on this. Arinze Kene’s coming of age play which first appeared at the OvalHouse in 2011 is high octane stuff. Which here, under the direction of this year’s winner of the JMK Award, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, and a committed cast of Anyebe Godwin as Kehinde, Rachel Nwokoro as Joanne and Khai Shaw as Rugrat, got the production it deserved. (I see there are all deservedly up for Offie Awards). Missing AK’s one man show Misty in 2018 has become even more of an oversight on the basis of this but his take on Biff Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman ranks as one of the best in London theatre in 2019.

Joanne carries a lot of swagger and attitude but worries about her mum’s mental health. Kehinde is a sensitive soul with his eye on a mixed race girl. Rugrat is the class clown who lacks direction. All are negotiating their way through inner city life. School, relationships, gangs, parents, emotions, money, ambition. But this is no fulmination of worthy dialogue. Instead AK mixes monologue, poetry, audience address and participation, recollection, history, comedy, physical theatre, dance, song, to tell their, interconnected, stories, notably Kehinde’s search for his now absent twin sister. It is generous, exciting, uplifting, and sometimes a little confusing as these stories overlap and are often left hanging. It starts off with laughs, a lot of them, but ends up somewhere far more contemplative.

If stage acting is about losing the fear then, trust me, these three show no fear. It really pains me to say this, so good are all three, but Rachel Nwokoro, has got IT. I can see that she has no interest in being tied down to a traditional acting career but I dearly hope I see her on stage again.

Tara Usher’s design is admirably straightforward , Bethany Gupwell’s lighting, dominated by an overhead halo, just about keeps up, Nicola Chang’s sound is superb and I hope DK Fashola, as movement consultant, got properly rewarded for his contribution.

Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu has directed a number of his own plays, including Sweet Like Chocolate, Boy, but I think I am right in saying this is his biggest directing gig to date. There are a number of established BME British directors, Indhu Rubasingham obviously, Nadia Fall, Lynette Linton at the Bush, (and who directed Sweat at the Donmar, my choice for best play of 2019), Roy Alexander Weise, about to take up the, shared, reins at the Royal Exchange Manchester, Nancy Medina, Matthew Xia, Beijan Sheibani, as well as up and coming talents such as Nicole Charles, Ola Ince, Gbolahan Obisesan and Emily Lim, all of whose work I have seen in the last few months. There’s a way to go but this, along with the wealth of BME acting, and lately writing, talent getting an opportunity to tell their stories, is encouraging. It permits me to see and hear stories that I would otherwise not. Which, when you come to think of it, is the whole point of theatre.

P.S. The photo of the Orange Tree was taken a few years ago. The sharp eyed amongst you will see the poster promoting the OT’s trilogy based on Middlemarch from 2013. Not, if I am honest, an unqualified success but an opportunity to remind me to implore you, in this, the week of the bicentenary of her birth, to read Middlemarch. Either for the first time. Or again. It is the greatest story ever told in the English language. Even if it is about the middle class in middle England.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.

I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.

Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.

She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.

This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.

In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.

Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.

In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.

I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.

Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.

The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.

But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.

The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.

Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.

Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.

Blues in the Night at the Kiln Theatre review ***

Blues in the Night

Kiln Theatre, 31st July 2019

Right. I’ll cut to the chase. Blues in the Night isn’t really a work of drama. Or really musical theatre. It is a nostalgic revue purporting to tell the story of three women, the Lady (Sharon D Clarke), the Woman (Debbie Kurup) and the Girl (Gemma Sutton), who have been variously misused by men in their lives, holed up in a cheap, seedy hotel in pre-war Chicago. They are joined by the spivish Man (Clive Rowe), who they have all encountered, a couple of hustler/bartender types (Aston New and Joseph Poulton) and, surprise, surprise, an on-stage band. With minimal spoken narrative, barely any characterisation and no real story to speak of, these archetypes proceed to sing and dance their way, in various combinations, through 25 mostly torch, blues and jazz standards over the course of a couple of hours.

To be fair I doubt that African-American director Sheldon Epps intended any more than this when he first dreamt this up in 1980. This is a vehicle to showcase the music and, to a lesser extent, and less successfully, highlight the plight of the three women it portrays. It first appeared in London at the Donmar in 1987, to some acclaim, but this is its first revival for 30 years. 

So, providing you bear all that in mind, and don’t go expecting much in the way of interaction between the characters, or much insight into their inner lives beyond mooching about their lost “loves”, drowning their sorrows in whiskey and fags or boasting about their conquests, then you are in for a treat. Or you would have been if you had seen it before the run ended. The set design of Robert Jones, which foregrounds the “bedrooms” of the three women where many of the songs are performed (with a fully stocked bar at the back!), the on-stage band of Shaney Forbes (drums), Stuart Brooks (trumpet), Horace Cardew (sax, clarinet, flute), Rachel Espeute (double bass, led by Mark Dickman on piano, and the sprightly direction of Susie McKenna, are all excellent. Lotte Collett’s costumes also hit the mark. 

Gemma Sutton’s voice is a little underpowered compared to Debbie Kurup’s, though the tiresome stereotype of the Girl did her no favours. Clive Rowe though can swing and manages somehow to conjure up the bumptious cockiness of the Man from next to no material, with a fine voice especially in lower registers. 

But let’s be honest. The main (only?) reason to see this was Sharon D Clarke. She doesn’t have much opportunity to display her formidable acting skills but who cares given that voice. The stand out is when she gets to sing Wasted Life Blues. “Wonder what will become of poor me”. Close your eyes and Bessie Smith (above) could be in the house. OK so this isn’t really close to her extraordinary performance in Caroline, Or Change, or in the title role in NT’s revival of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom or even as Linda Loman in the Young Vic Death of a Salesman, (my theatrical highlight of this or any other year is hearing her rebuke Biff and Happy when they mock Willy), but it is still tremendous stuff. Go see her outshine the rest of the cast and blow the roof off in a West End musical potboiler or watch her define “hidden depths” on the telly for sure, but ideally catch her in something like the above, with a bit more dramatic heft, to see just how she commands the stage, singing or speaking. 

The other songs written by Ms Smith, Baby Doll, Blue, Blue, Dirty No-Gooder Blues, It Makes My Love Come Down, Nobody Knows When You’re Down And Out and Reckless Blues, also outshine the contributions of the other composers but it’s still pretty hard not to enjoy the likes of Kitchen Man (Ms Clarke saucing it up), Harold Arden’s eponymous Blues in the Night or Lover Man. 

The SO, who is partial to both Ms Clarke and the Kiln, agreed. Looked good, sounded great, eminently forgettable. 

Present Laughter at the Old Vic review ****

Present Laughter

Old Vic Theatre, 24th July 2019

Ummed and ahhed about whether to see this. On the one hand it was Andrew Scott in the lead as one of theatre’s most renowned hyper-narcissists, Gary Essendine. On the other hand it was a play from the dreadful old reactionary Noel Coward, albeit one of the quartet of classic comedies of manner, alongside Hay Fever, Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, before he became a terribly bitter sh*t.

Its problem is that it is smugly celebrating the very world and people that it purports to subvert. Of course it racks up caustic barb after knowing aside, many of which are admittedly pretty funny, all wrapped up in a well constructed, if gentle, farce, but it never really gets under the skin of its main, or supporting, characters. Which leaves me more annoyed than intrigued by the central conceit, that an actor/artist, and now just “celebrity”, needs the constant validation of others to stave off lonely despair as he/she negotiates the divide between reality and performance. Message to Gary/Noel. Just because you know you are a needy prick doesn’t make you any less of a needy prick. (Essendine, famously, is an anagram of neediness).

Still my adoration for Mr Scott won out, alongside a hunch, correct as it turned out, that director Matthew Warchus would be unable to resist having some fun making explicit the covert sexual relationships at the centre of the original play. And, in the end, I was very glad I went. Still can’t quite shake off the indignation that informs the above opinion of the snobbish, bullying Coward and his plays, but I have to admit the layers that emerge through the play really did surprise me.

Rob Howell’s set and costumes offer a striking jazzy deco period vibe, (the plays dates from 1943), with a contemporary twist, which helped enliven the somewhat cardboard supporting characters, and Mr Warchus instructed them not to hold back. Which suits the talents of Enzo Cilenti as Joe, Gary’s forthright paramour and Suzie Toase as his cuckolded wife Helen. Abdul Salis is Gary’s agent Morris Dixon, natural comic Sophie Thomson as Gary’s protective assistant Monica, Joshua Hill as stalwart valet Fred whilst rising talent Kitty Archer turns in another vivacious performance as young devotee Daphne. Though these are all a little overshadowed by Luke Thallon as super-fan and aspiring playwright Roland Maule and, especially Indira Varma as Liz, Gary’s world-weary wife. Not quite everyone is putting on a performance but Gary certainly is not alone in the attention seeking stakes. And they obviously need him as much as he needs them.

The deliberately ropey plot is never over-accelerated, although a few gags are still painfully telegraphed. And somehow the genius stage actor that is Andrew Scott managed to extract pathos and ambiguity, beyond the sexual, from Gary’s egomania. He cannot quite escape the masturbatory-squared approach that Coward takes to his stage alter-ego but he does leave you guessing as to his true feelings and the idea of Gary/Coward as some sort of mid-life, man-child, he is in his early 40s, is perspicacious. And, once again, Mr Scott manages that rare trick of projecting his performance not just to the whole audience but also to each and every one of us, (at least that’s what I felt).

So message received and understood. Though I don’t think I will ever feel pity for those who choose celebrity. If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And definitely don’t stick your head in the oven whilst getting your publicist elicit public sympathy.

Noye’s Fludde at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

Noye’s Fludde

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 3rd July 2019

You might think it’s a bit sad really. A grown man in his 50s on his own at a children’s opera performed by a community that he cannot claim to be any part of. Unfortunately my kids never caught the Britten bug when younger, despite what I thought were subtle attempts to influence them, and are now way too old to traipse along with Dad to this sort of thing. Actually what am I talking about? There was never a cat’s chance in hell that they were going to fall for Britten or opera, children’s or otherwise. A situation likely shared by 99.999999999% of the population. Which meant I was pretty much the only audience member there for the opera than the performers.

For this was the only Britten opera, (if you discount his version of Gay’s Beggars Opera), that the Tourist had never seen. And completism, as my regular reader undoubtedly registered sometime ago, is one of the Tourist’s many vices. As is condescension. So forgive me when I say that the bulk of the audience probably had next to no interest in Britten or his operas. But they did have a vested interest in seeing their little darlings on stage. And I can assure you that those kids made them properly proud. Though I would contend that, without the genius of BB, and the unnamed writer who created the Chester mystery play text from which the Victorian writer Alfred W Pollard drew his adaptation, this wouldn’t have been anything close to the uplifting entertainment it was.

BB had already written a little children’s opera, The Little Sweep, in 1949 (part of Let’s Make an Opera) and also previously adapted text from the Chester play cycle for his Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac. To Pollard’s text he added a few hymns, a Kyrie and an Alleluia chorus. There is a spoken Voice of God, played by acting royalty Suzanne Bertish no less, and Noah and his wife are both professional roles, here Marcus Farnsworth and Louise Callinan. Whilst Mr Farnsworth may be better known in recital he also has a distinguished opera CV to date and Ms Callinan is a veteran of multiple European houses. This, along with the 15 members of the ENO Orchestra, Martin Fitzpatrick, (Head of Music at ENO who conducted), Lyndsey Turner directing, and the likes of Soutra Gilmour (designer), Oliver Fenwick (lighting), Luke Halls (video), Lynne Page (movement), Oliver Jeffers (artwork) and Wayne McGregor (choreography), shows just how seriously the ENO took this production. This serious intent though never crushed the joy of its construction.

For Noye’s Fludde is really all about the amateur participants across the named human, (Noah’s sons and their wives and some gossips), and animal, (plenty of these, as you might expect), roles and the chorus. Step forward and take a bow Brampton Primary School, Churchfields Junior School, Newham Music and Newham Music Hub, and all the other local musicians and singers who were a part of this mammoth effort. And the Mums, Dads, siblings, Grannies, Grandads, carers, teachers, teaching assistants, community assistants, chaperones, ENO and TRSE back and front stage folk who chipped in. I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly did, even without any companions.

Special thanks though to BB. The idea of Noye’s Fludde had kicked around for a few years but it was a TV commission, eventually championed by Lew Grade at ATV, that spurred BB on to completing the score in March 1958. The wonder is that such genuinely inventive and atmospheric music should have been so brilliantly created for amateur musicians, as well as the professional core. And not just for the bugles, (hand)-bells, whistles and all manner of other improvised instruments that populate the music. No, there are proper parts for violins, violas, cellos, double basses and recorders. More than that these parts vary in difficulty with each section led by a professional. And there are plenty of passages which flirt with dissonance, in the manner of BB’s “grown-up” operas, well beyond the stuff you might expect from a “children’s” piece.

Listen to the first hymn which has an out of step bass line motif to contrast the chorus which lends a darker quality. This bass motif is taken up by the timpani to herald the first of God’s warnings. The syncopated song which follows as the Noah family come up is much more upbeat. The jaunty Mahlerian march which accompanies the Kyrie presages the entry of the animals and follows a striking, literally, as all manner of percussive effects are provided by the amateurs, passage as the Ark is built. There is a clever three part canon to introduce the birds. The storm scene at the centre of the opera is that old BB favourite an extended passacaglia, which uses the whole chromatic scale. Mugs hit by wooden spoons simulate raindrops, recorder trills become wind, strings become waves, percussion thunder and lightning, pianos provide the motif. A pastoral follows when the storm subsides and then, obviously, there are simple waltzes on cello and recorder to see off Raven and Dove. As the Ark empties out the bugles sound with handbells, (who pop up throughout until the very end), signalling the appearance of the rainbow. A rainbow that here spreads right across the stage, a fitting symbol of pride, to set alongside the. ecological message.

The way in which BB takes his trademark sound, simplifies it and recasts it for the different skills of his performers is really very, very clever. That it also able to incorporate all these various voices, including, sparingly, the audience and still create really effective, and moving, theatre is even more extraordinary. And just in case you are thinking this all sounds a little too tricksy-twee-schmatlzy-worthy there are plenty of clever visual gags from the animals to undercut it all.

BB specified the opera be performed in public, community spaces or churches rather than theatres. TRSE is such a dear old place however, and the “child’s picture book” design here, (which expertly captures the professional/amateur essence), so enchanting, that I am sure BB wouldn’t have complained. No idea if BB ever even met the architect of TRSE’s heyday Joan Littlewood but it is fitting that this vital piece of community theatre should have been so splendidly realised in such a space.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses at the Vaults Festival review *****

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Pants on Fire, Vaults Festival, 23rd February

Seven years in to the Vaults Festival and finally the Tourist takes the plunge. If there is a cutting edge to avoid you can be sure the Tourist finds it. It is not even as if the Waterloo location is inconvenient. It could hardly be more accessible. Still better late than never.

Last year the Festival, which I read somewhere is now the biggest outside Edinburgh, attracted some 70,000 punters over 8 weeks. This year there are over 400 shows from around 2000 artists and performers. You pay £15 or so for an hour or so’s entertainment. The organisers get 30% of the take to cover costs, the artists 70%. That, I am assured, is way more attractive for the creative that the usual economic model. So everyone’s a winner.

Especially when the hour, or in this case, 80 minutes or so is of the quality of Pants on Fire’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now I could bullshit you and pretend I have read Ovid’s magnum opus, basically a history of the world from the creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, part mythic, part factual, in the form of a narrative poem made up of 12,000 lines over 15 books and incorporating over 250 myths. I haven’t. But, such is the pervasive nature of these myths in Western culture, I am, like any reasonably aware culture vulture, au fait with most of the stories.

And that is all you need to enjoy this show. The selected stories are, adroitly, set in Britain during WWII. Think period uniforms. Each of the chosen myths, (I would have been happy to watch the cast of seven take on the entire 15 books, but I guess they, and we, had homes to go to), takes the form of a sketch if you will, with narration, performance, on stage music, various props and enterprising video, lighting and sound design. There is even some puppetry and animation. Whilst the Crescent may be the biggest of the various venues across the Festival this is still a tiny stage so the creative team, led by director Peter Bramley, had to be pretty ingenious to fit it all together. The four panels centre stage which served as backdrop and screens seemed to be in constant motion. Favourite setting? The Underground as the Underworld. Genius. Favourite transformation? Io complete with tin can hooves and gas mask. Double genius. Favourite scene? Narcissus as Hollywood idle with Echo as usherette. Triple genius.

Now I can’t pretend I clocked all of the stories on show but the following were all name-checked. The Creation, Sirens, Gorgons, Apollo, Daphne, Io, Mercury, Cadmus, Diana, Semele, Bacchus, Tiresias, Narcissus, Echo, Cupid, Icarus, Salmacis, Hermaphroditus, Perseus, Arachne, Marsyas, Medusa, Jason, the Minotaur, Hercules, Orpheus, Eurydice, Midas, Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses. At least I think they were. I might have got confused with Unmythable from Out of Chaos that I saw a week or so later, equally as entertaining. Anyway the point is that Metamorphoses is innovative, imaginative and above all very, very funny. I gather that Ovid’s poem ticks the form box marked epic but also takes in the elegiac, tragic and pastoral along the way. It is certainly keen to mock and subvert its own pretension; it is properly “meta” in the modern argot. This is wryly captured in Pants on Fire’s routines. As is the theme of metamorphosis or transformation from one form to another, and the power of love, Amor, to upset various narrative apple carts.

Pants on Fire was founded by AD Peter Bramley, who trained with Jacques Lecoq, in 2004, alongside Heather Winstanley who devised the visuals and produced Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lucy Eggers composed the original music for OM, the Andrews Sisters style chorus numbers being one of the highlights. Whilst POF have created a number of shows it is this that has garnered awards and toured extensively following its debut in 2010 (at the dear old Greenwich Theatre and then Edinburgh). It is easy to see why. (I do like the sound of their Splice mind you, an hour long theatrical tour through the history of cinema). They are currently working on creating a festival of one person, performance “shorts”. Sounds good.

The cast here included Beth Lockhart who is the other principal of Pants on Fire along with Adam Boakes, Max Gallagher, Sindre Kaurang, Chloe Levis, Bridget Mylecharane and Rosie Ward. A splendid ensemble largely drawn from Rose Buford College where Peter Bramley teaches movement. There were moments when the timing went awry and accents wobbled but frankly that is all part of the improvisational charm.

Theatre is about transformation and can be transformative. Ovid was ploughing the same furrow. Certainly one of the best hour’s entertainments I have seen in this or any other year. It will be back. Don’t miss it.